Wednesday, 26 December 2007

2007: A Year in Music [Part 3: Cutting room floor]

We'll continue the rundown of 2007 with the albums which didn't make the cut of the top 5 list of my favourite albums of the year. Some of these were disappointments, and some were simply pushed out of the top 5 by fierce competition.

There is no order to these, so they are simply sorted alphabetically by the artist or band name.

Manic Street Preachers - Send away the tigers

A bit of a return to form for these veteran rockers after their partially successful attempt at fitting in with the Coldplay crowd on 2004's Lifeblood. Many reviewers have called this their best album since their 1996 classic Everything must go (their first post-Richey album). I've never understood how critics could pan 1998's This is my truth tell me yours; in my opinion this was a classic album of the late 90's. Although I'll admit I am a bit biased as that album has nostalgic value for me as it was the first Manics album I had heard, and I got into it at a time of my life when discovering new music like this was still pretty exciting. I'm also a big defender of 2001's Know your enemy; while I agree that it is over-long and could have been trimmed down to a tighter album, the best songs on that album are up there with some of the best that Manics have released.

What of Send away the tigers, then? This is just a solid Manics album; at 38 minutes it is nice and concise, but most importantly there is an abundance of great tunes. There are some anthems here that only a band like Manics still record (the title track, The second great depression, Autumnsong), a surprisingly effective duet with Nina Persson from the Cardigans (Your love alone is not enough), and in something which has become par for the course for latter-day Manics albums, a few filler tracks which don't quite work as well (Underdogs, Imperial bodybags). Not a great album, but certainly not an embarrassment and better than we should be expecting from them after all these years.

The Polyphonic Spree - The fragile army

2004's Together we're heavy was a massive leap over their debut album, mainly because I started to believe that this crazy 24-piece band could really shed the novelty aspect of their cult-like status and be real players in the indie music biz. It was for this reason, and also because it was a corker of an album, that it was in my top 5 albums of 2004.

The fragile army is unfortunately more of a sideways step rather than a leap to something new. There are some new elements to their sound on this album (a music-hall movement on the title track, for instance), but for me to take a band like this seriously, the songwriting needs to make me forget that I'm listening to a 24-piece band, and unfortunately it all feels a bit over-the-top this time. While most bands can still remain interesting by making gradual progressions between albums, it doesn't seem to work as well for these guys...maybe the progression that is required to remain interesting is proportional to the size of the band?

Gruff Rhys - Candylion

The second solo album from the quirky Super Furry Animals frontman, Candylion continues to prove that this guy has a bottomless pit of fantastic melodies just waiting to be recorded and released to his legion of happy fans around the world.

These songs are mellower and a bit less strange than those from 2007's SFA album Hey Venus!, and it's only for this reason (and the fact that Gruff handles all vocals on this one) that one can differentiate this from just another SFA album (not that an SFA album is particularly easy to pigeonhole).

There's really not a duff track here, and many of the songs are instant classics (The court of King Arthur, Beacon in the darkness and the hilarious closer Skylon!) that sound like stuff the Beatles may have recorded in their later days if they were from Cardiff instead of Liverpool.

The Shins - Wincing the night away

The first Shins album to be released since Natalie Portman famous hyped them up in Garden state. It has become customary to mention Ms. Portman in the opening sentence of any review of this album, so why should I be any different?

This is the 3rd album from these Milwaukee tunesmiths who have almost become the defining indie popstars of this decade. And there's not a lot to fault on this album; these guys are masters of their craft, and many of the songs here are not only classic Shins songs, but classic songs of their genre (melodic indie folk-pop is probably the best way to describe it). They even try a few new things here (a short segue track in Pam Berry, a mellow hip-hop beat in Sealegs), which show that they are at least up for trying new things even if they don't always work.

The only real criticism I can give this album is that these guys set the bar too high with their previous album Chutes too narrow, which over the years has grown on me immensely and I now think of it as one of the greatest albums of the decade so far. But we shouldn't penalise them for past glories now, should we?

Elliott Smith - New moon

This is disqualified from the running of the top 5 as it's not an album but merely a compilation of tracks recorded by the late indie folk genius. What can I say about these tracks? The man never released a bad song in his short life, and these tracks are no exception.

Most of the tracks on New moon were recorded at the same time as his 2nd self-titled album from 1994 and his 1997 masterpiece Either/or, so quite naturally they share a fairly similar sound to the songs on those albums (although I would say that they share more similarities with the stripped-down songs on Elliott Smith).

Unfortunately I probably haven't given attention to these 2 discs, so many of the tracks blend into each other for me and I find it difficult to pick standout tracks. But, if I had my arm twisted, I would probably pick out High times, Whatever (folk song in C) and Either/or as standouts. I look forward to more songs being squeezed out of the vaults for future CD releases.

Super Furry Animals - Hey Venus!

Many critics called this a return to form after 2005's Love kraft, but I for one loved that album and included it in my top 10 albums of 2005. This is probably their most straight-forward (read: less weird) album since their debut Fuzzy logic in 1996, but there is no shortage of amazing songs on this album: Run-away is already an SFA classic, Show your hand and The gift that keeps giving are ridiculously catchy and the fascinating Carbon dating almost picks up where the subdued Love kraft left off.

8 albums in, SFA are a band who continue to impress with each and every release and while they definitely have a sound of their own, you could never accuse them of repeating themselves. One negative - bring back Pete Fowler to do the artwork for the next album! The Hey Venus! artwork sucks.

Wilco - Sky blue sky

This was one of the more debated albums in the Internet community this year. Pitchfork summed it up for many fans when they referred to this album as "dad-rock". Many other reviewers praised Wilco for making the album they wanted to make.

From the start, every album that Wilco has made has been different enough from the previous album that they have never been a band that you could accuse of repeating themselves. A.M. was the alt-country album. Being there was the rough and dirty (and not filler-free) double album, their Exile on Main Street if you will. Summerteeth was their Beatles album. Yankee hotel foxtrot was their re-invention album. A ghost is born was their avante-garde krautrock-influenced album. And yes, Sky blue sky is most certainly their back to basics album.

What about the songs then? Look, there are some really impressive songs here -- Impossible germany features some great Marquee moon-esque guitar interplay, Side with the seeds and Walken almost sounds like Ghost outtakes, Hate it here is just a great pop song with a fantastic guitar hook. Then there are the songs which just blow by in an air of inoffensiveness - Either way, Sky blue sky, Please be patient with me, Leave me (like you found me), On and on and on...all nice songs, don't get be wrong. But for the first time since they formed, I don't feel challenged by this album, and for that reason I can't help but call it a slight (albeit still impressive) disappointment.


  1. Just to again add my 2 cents, I thought Sky Blue Sky has a fantastic set of opening 4 tracks (especially You Are My Face, which is among their best work), but that the albums really gets mediocre after that (but still very listenable). Their show at the Palais in April was superb, so they can be forgiven. SFA's Hey Venus! is solid, but far too straight for that group, so I can really only regard it as a disappointment. -Pete

  2. So you like the title track of Sky Blue Sky? I always thought it was such an inconsequential track and it never really hit me as being anything impressive.

    But why stop at the first 5 tracks? Side with the seeds is probably my favourite track on the album! Although I remember you saying that you weren't a big fan of it...


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